Get firm and flexible! This 17-exercise mat program requires no equipment or gym membership.
The best workouts are the ones that make you functionally fit – not just isolating the major muscle groups but also engaging the smaller, stabilizing muscles, too. Mat workouts can accomplish this beautifully.
Though stabilizer muscles might not become directly involved in moving a load, they help keep important parts of your body stabilized so that your primary muscle groups can exert their force without injuring your spine or joints.
This is important because in real life – when we move in real ways doing real things, such as lifting groceries or exiting a car – we usually are not isolating one major muscle group along a single plane.
In actual day-to-living, we tend to twist in asymmetrical ways that require balance and agility – and lots of indirect support from smaller muscles.
A simple example of this is the crunch versus the plank. For a while, almost everybody in the gym was doing crunches to try to strengthen their abdominals.
And that’s fine. Crunches are a good exercise.
However, the primary purpose of abdominal muscles are stabilization, not flexion. And therefore, the plank is an even more effective exercise for engaging the abdominal muscles in a way you actually need them in real life.
So, yes, do crunches. But don’t forget to plank, too. (Think of planking as the cake and crunches as the frosting.)
Fortunately, most of the mat exercises I’ve included here engage the core for stabilization, similar to the plank.
“What Exercise Program Is Best for Me?”
The best exercise program for you is the one that supports your longevity.
The idea is to become healthier and stronger each passing year while remaining flexible and injury-free.
This is the genius of pilates mat work. It not only helps you look better (who doesn’t like muscular definition?) and feel better – it also strengthens your body in highly practical ways.
Pilates mat work improves mobility and makes you more functionally fit. It is:
- effective for both men and women;
- for beginners or advanced athletes;
- for young people or those over the age of 50.
Pilates Mat Work Will Help Strengthen and Define Your Body’s Muscles While Burning Calories
The astonishing thing about a pilates mat workout is how – if you do the exercises consecutively without stopping – your heart rate remains accelerated, in the zone appropriate for utilizing fat cells for energy. Calories will be burned!
At the end of a mat workout done properly, you will feel that your body’s muscles – primary movers and stabilizers – have been fully engaged. The end result is a stronger musculature and a trimmer physique.
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To help get you started, here are 17 mat exercises that require no equipment or gym membership.
Even the towel and mat are optional, as you could just as easily do these exercises on a carpeted area of your home.
I encourage you to move at a speed that is appropriate for your current level of fitness and flexibility. Consult your doctor before undertaking any new regimen of physical fitness.
During the workout, always be mindful of your neck and lower-back positioning. If a movement pattern causes you sharp pain or significant discomfort, stop doing it.
Hundreds is the name of a fundamental exercise in Pilates. What makes hundreds fascinating, is that it appears so simple – yet, the longer you do it the more dimensions to the exercise you discover.
- Raise your head off the mat, keeping you cervical spine long and chin slightly tucked.
- Your shoulder blades barely come up off the mat.
- Reach your arms down your sides with energized fingers.
- Press your shoulders away from your ears as much as you possibly can.
- Pump your arms in small, quick movements (initiating this movement from you lat muscles along the sides of your back).
- Inhale for 5 pumps, exhale for 5 pumps – continue until to reach 100 repetitions (hence, the name of the exercise).
- Your legs are long, toes pointed – keep your feet up off the mat high enough to keep your lower back bolted safely to the mat, but not so high that you don’t feel challenged within your core muscles.
- Draw your navel into your spine with fierce intensity.
- Compress your top ribs down as much as you can (no expanded rib cage)!
The Roll Ups exercise is just as it sounds –– you begin lying down, then roll up slowly beginning with your head and arms until you end touching your toes.
Next, you roll slowly back down.
The trick to Roll Ups is to avoid using momentum. Keep your heels pressing down into the mat, and use the strength of your abdominals to initiate movement.
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For more advanced athletes, keep your arms next to your ears throughout the entire movement. For beginners, keep your arms at shoulder level for the latter part of the movement.
Do 5 repetitions.
- Be cautious with your neck. Your neck muscles don’t do the work, your abs do the work.
- Point your toes on the way up, and flex your feet on the way down.
- 5 reps.
Single Leg Circles
- Lying down, extend your straight leg at a 90-degree angle from your body. (Refer to video to see how this particular exercise is executed.)
- Point your toe and imagine laser beams of energy shooting from your toes. The idea is to keep the leg strong, taut, and fast as you circle it around.
- 5 reps in each direction, then switch legs.
Rolling Like a Ball
10 repetitions of rolling your body like a ball, with a pause at the top:
- Go slowly. No momentum.
- Use your contracted core muscles to control the movement.
- Try to keep your feet close to your hamstrings.
- Pull your navel in toward your back with intensity.
- Similarly, think of pulling in your lower abdominal plate (this is the upside-down triangle of muscles directly below your navel).
- Keep your top ribs pressed in tightly. (Basically, your entire abdominal wall should hollow-out in one big scoop.)
- Even though your abs are working hard, remember to breathe – inhaling through your nose on the roll back, and exhaling on the roll forward.
Single Leg Pull
Exhale each time your pull one knee toward your chest (the extended leg hovers off the mat). 10 reps (5 each side).
Double Leg Pull
A simple exercise, yet quite effective for tightening the abs while stretching the lower back. Extend both arms and legs out, then hug them together as you exhale.
While extending, what matters is the shape you create. Keep your spine long while you compress your ribs and pull your abdominal wall in as flat as you can.
Single Straight Leg Stretch
Women will probably have an easier time with this one. For a dude with tight hamstrings, like me, the challenge is keeping the top leg as straight as possible.
Raise your head and shoulder blades up off the mat. Pull one leg in toward your nose – keeping it straight – as you exhale (simultaneously bolting your navel into the mat). Then switch legs.
Tip: instead of using your hands to pull the leg toward your nose, think instead of pushing your leg into your hands. That will help you get that hamstring longer.
That extended lower leg always hovers an inch off the mat – never resting.
10 reps (5 each side).
Double Straight Leg Stretch
Hands behind your head with elbows open wide:
- Lengthen your spine – imagine reach your neck long so that the crown of your head touches the wall behind you (chin slightly tucked).
- Press your lower back firmly into your mat.
- With straight legs, pull them toward your nose, initiating the movement from the contraction of your lower abdominal muscles.
- Return your legs to the diagonal position, but only go as far as you can while still keeping your lower back safely bolted to the map.
- For extra intensity, advanced athletes can scoop their tailbone up a fraction at the top of each rep.
- 5 reps.
Oblique Criss Cross
Good, old-fashioned bicycles for the abs. 20 reps, 10 each side.
First sitting as tall as you can, reach out past your toes as you hollow-out your abdomen. Then, slowly roll up, articulating and lengthening the spine as you go. 5 reps.
Challenge: experiment with ways to breathe mindfully through your nose – so that when you choose to inhale or exhale actually facilitates the movement.
Open Leg Rocker
Similar to the Rolling Like A Ball exercise, except this time your legs are straight. 10 reps.
Lying on your back, extend your straight legs up over your hips at a 90-degree angle. Keeping your legs together, circle your feet around in one direction 5 times, then 5 times the other direction – as if your drawing large ovals on the ceiling with your toes.
Beginners might find it helpful to reach their arms overhead to grab something behind them for a little extra leverage.
Pilates mat work is really about exaggeration.
Sit on a mat with your legs out in front of you and your arms out to the side at shoulder level. Now:
- How tall can you make your spine? Imagine the top of your head touching the ceiling. Can you sit up one inch taller?
- How wide can you make your wingspan?
- How long can you make your neck?
- How far down can you press your shoulders away from your ears?
- Activate your glutes, as if you’re sitting on hot coals.
- Bend forward and rotate, so that your opposite hand reaches past your foot (“the saw”). Is your abdomen as hollow as you can possibly make it?
- 10 reps (5 each side).
To launch safely into the Swan exercise, you begin in a Cobra stretch.
Releasing your hands quickly from the Cobra, use that momentum to rock forward and back like a cradle for 10 repetitions.
Keep your navel pulled in, your glutes tight, and – most importantly – as your chest comes up off the mat during the rock-back, be sure to “mate” your pelvis into the mat to protect your lower back.
By the way, you might be tempted to hold your breath on this one, so do remember to breathe.
- A towel and a mat (both optional).
Do these exercises consecutively (without breaks in between):
- Roll Up
- Single Leg Circles
- Rolling Like a Ball
- Single Leg Pull
- Double Leg Pull
- Single Straight Leg Stretch
- Double Straight Leg Stretch
- Criss Cross
- Spine Stretch
- Open Leg Rocker
- Single Leg Kicks
- Double Leg Kicks
- Neck Pull
- Be mindful of your breathing during this workout (resist the temptation to hold your breath during an exercise).
- Pay extra attention to your neck and lower back areas, they should remain supported and pain-free.
- When done correctly, most of these movements are initiated from the contraction of your abdominal muscles – ribs are compressed and the navel drawn in tightly.
- Be patient with yourself – the more you practice these 17 movements, the more fun and effective they become.
Double Leg Kicks with Chest Opener
Women might not need a towel on this one. For men who have developed shoulder and chest muscles, however, a towel might be necessary. See video for full movement. 4 complete reps.
Even though this exercise is called Neck Pull, you don’t literally pull on your neck. Instead, the curve in your spine occurs mostly because you’re contracting your abdominal muscles (even so, the neck stretch feels good). See video for full movement. 5 reps.
Mindful breathing is an important part of pilates mat work.
The proper breathing patterns for mat exercises can be a tad complex and are beyond the scope of this particular article. However, if you find you enjoy mat work and you want to take it to the next level, I encourage you to seek out a Classical Pilates Trainer and they will help you become skilled with the breathing techniques.
Mat exercises are funny, because they always look easier when someone else is doing them. But when you do them, and do them with proper form, your muscles will start to quiver with fatigue halfway through the sequence – especially your abdominals! It is a highly effective workout that produces results you can see and feel.
My next feature will present the remaining mat exercises, including the best ones for thigh-sculpting, six-pack abs, and a bubble butt. Subscribe to my weekly updates so that you don’t miss that one.
Special thanks to Jeremy Blaine for his help with this article.